Michelangelo Buonarroti, the greatest of the Italian Renaissance artists, is born in the small village of Caprese on March 6, 1475. The son of a government administrator, he grew up in Florence, a center of the early Renaissance movement, and became an artist’s apprentice at age 13. Demonstrating obvious talent, he was taken under the wing of Lorenzo de’ Medici, the ruler of the Florentine republic and a great patron of the arts. For two years beginning in 1490, he lived in the Medici palace, where he was a student of the sculptor Bertoldo di Giovanni and
studied the Medici art collection, which included ancient Roman statuary.
With the expulsion of the Medici family from Florence in 1494, Michelangelo traveled to Bologna and Rome, where he was commissioned to do several works. His most important early work was the Pieta (1498), a sculpture based on a traditional type of devotional image that showed the body of Christ in the lap of the Virgin Mary. Demonstrating masterful technical skill, he extracted the two perfectly balanced figures of the Pieta from a single block of marble.
With the success of the Pieta, the artist was commissioned to sculpt a monumental statue of the biblical character David for the Florence cathedral. The 17-foot statue, produced in the classical style, demonstrates the artist’s exhaustive knowledge of human anatomy and form. In the work, David is shown watching the approach of his foe Goliath, with every muscle tensed and a pose suggesting impending movement. Upon the completion of David in 1504, Michelangelo’s reputation was firmly established.
That year, he agreed to paint a mural for the Florence city hall to rest alongside one being painted by Leonardo da Vinci, another leading Renaissance artist and an influence on Michelangelo. These murals, which depicted military scenes, have not survived. In 1505, he began work on a planned group of 12 marble apostles for the Florence cathedral but abandoned the project when he was commissioned to design and sculpt a massive tomb for Pope Julius II in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. There were to have been 40 sculptures made for the tomb, but the pope soon ran out of funds for the project, and Michelangelo left Rome.
In 1508, he was called back to Rome to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the chief consecrated space in the Vatican. Michelangelo’s epic ceiling frescoes, which took several years to complete, are among his most memorable works. Central in a complex system of decoration featuring numerous figures are nine panels devoted to biblical world history. The most famous of these is The Creation of Adam, a painting in which the arms of God and Adam are outstretched toward each other.
In 1512, Michelangelo completed the Sistine Chapel ceiling and returned to his work on Pope Julius II’s tomb. He eventually completed a total of just three statues for the tomb, which was eventually placed in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli. The most notable of the three is Moses (1513-15), a majestic statue made from a block of marble regarded as unmalleable by other sculptors. In Moses, as in David, Michelangelo infused the stone with a powerful sense of tension and movement.
Having revolutionized European sculpture and painting, Michelangelo turned to architecture in the latter half of his life. His first major architectural achievement was the Medici chapel in the Church of San Lorenzo in Florence, built to house the tombs of the two young Medici family heirs who had recently died. The chapel, which he worked on until 1534, featured many innovative architectural forms based on classical models. The Laurentian Library, which he built as an annex to the same church, is notable for its stair-hall, known as the ricetto, which is regarded as the first instance of mannerism as an architectural style. Mannerism, a successor to the Renaissance artistic movement, subverted harmonious classical forms in favor of expressiveness.
In 1534, Michelangelo left Florence for the last time and traveled to Rome, where he would work and live for the rest of his life. That year saw his painting of the The Last Judgment on a wall above the altar in the Sistine Chapel for Pope Paul III. The massive painting depicts Christ’s damnation of sinners and blessing of the virtuous, and is regarded as a masterpiece of early mannerism. During the last three decades of his life, Michelangelo lent his talents to the design of numerous monuments and buildings for Rome, which the pope and city leaders were determined to restore to the grandeur of its ancient past. The Capitoline Square and the dome of St. Peter’s, designed by Michelangelo but not completed in his lifetime, remain two of Rome’s most famous visual landmarks.
Michelangelo worked until his death in 1564 at the age of 88. In addition to his major artistic works, he produced numerous other sculptures, frescoes, architectural designs, and drawings, many of which are unfinished and some of which are lost. He was also an accomplished poet, and some 300 of his poems are preserved. In his lifetime, he was celebrated as Europe’s greatest living artist, and today he is held up as one of the greatest artists of all time, as exalted in the visual arts as William Shakespeare is in literature or Ludwig van Beethoven is in music.